I think it was Barbara Pym who said that the trouble with keeping a diary is that half the time you have nothing to say and the other half you are so busy doing something demanding that there’s no time to write. The same goes for blog posts. There are several things that I’ve been meaning to write about for weeks and still not got round to. However, today I’ve (almost) caught up with the day job and it’s raining outside. Winter’s coming and the engineer has just been to service the boiler, which means the house is feeling cosy. A perfect blog-post-writing situation!
My husband and I are Francophiles and veterans of many holidays in France (our favourite remains the two weeks we spent at a camp-site at Argentière while we explored the French Alps on foot. We were young and very poor and the camp-site was accommodatingly cheap; it had two shaft toilets, two showers and no hot water. We lived on Vesta curries and tinned beans. But the walks – and the views – were amazing!). We’ve been to most of the départements in France, but until this year we’d never visited Provence – partly, I must admit, because after the publication of A Year in Provence and its sequels we had assumed it would be a tourist trap. This year, we took our holiday later and, knowing that it would coincide with la rentrée, we made the plunge and booked a gîte at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, a pretty town that lies just outside the area made famous by the Peter Mayle books.
It’s known for the huge market that takes it over on Sundays and its elaborate Sorgue waterway system, operated by a series of waterwheels and sluices, that irrigates the surrounding countryside. The tourist season was not completely finished, but we saw only a few Belgians, Dutch and Germans taking late holidays and almost no Britons. The town itself remains unspoilt by outlandish tourist attractions.
The same could be said for the region beyond it. There are some interesting places to visit, including: La Fontaine de Vaucluse, the source of the beautiful Sorgue (its depth remains uncertain, though numerous attempts, including one by Jacques Cousteau, have tried to plumb it) – Petrarch rather liked it here;
the ochre rocks of Roussillon, in the Parc Naturel Régional du Luberon, that (allegedly) supplied the pigment for Van Gogh’s sunflowers;
a working lavender factory. Yet none of these sets out to exploit tourists in a hard-nosed kind of way. Of them all, I liked the lavender factory the best. It has a small shop attached, set in hectares of its own rolling lavender fields. The first thing that struck me about the lavender was how tall it grows there, accustomed as I am to the more compact, domesticated-looking variety found in Norfolk.
The people who own the Provenςal factory also manage the shop and arrange short tours of the essential oil distillation process. They have constructed working models that demonstrate how the lavender essence is extracted from the flowers and they’re able to show some compelling footage of people in peasant dress working in the lavender fields before the Second World War, cutting rapidly with lethal-looking scythes and machetes. Apparently accidents were frequent – they worked so fast that they often injured themselves – but their mantra was ‘that which has caused the pain provides the cure’ – or so the commentator maintained. My guess is that they whipped something a little more colourful from their vocabulary when arms or legs were spurting blood, but the point being made was that lavender is a powerful antiseptic.
Lavender also has many other medicinal properties. I was fascinated to learn that it comes in three grades: lavender officinalis, the top grade, which is the one used for medicinal purposes; lavende aspic, a kind of middle grade which is mainly used as an essential oil in perfumes and amphorae;
and lavendin, made from a hybrid of two varieties of lavender with the consequence that it is actually sterile (so of no use to bees!). Lavendin is used as a herb and dried to fill scented sachets and such things as padded coat-hangers. Apparently, it has some medicinal uses, but you have to know what they are: it can aggravate burns, for example.
We’d taken the tour (and been distracted from the guide’s words by seeing a praying mantis clinging to a water bottle in the workshop), made a few purchases and returned to our car when I realised that I’d bought only lavende aspic. I returned to the shop to purchase some lavende officinalis, and found it was deserted. I conducted a small reconnoitre and discovered the two assistants outside in the yard, both gasping away on their fags. Very French! And even more Peter Mayle!!